Frederic Mizen 1888–1964

Untitled (Navajo Portrait)

, dated 1956

Oil on canvas, 54 by 36 inches

A Native American hunter, rifle resting on his shoulder and his hunting dog close by, appears to alertly scan the distance in Frederic Mizen’s generously scaled painting. Thought to represent a member of the Navajo nation, the figure is clothed in a colorful red shirt over fringed animal skin leggings and soft moccasins, while his head and shoulders are swathed in loose white fabric that billows dramatically in the wind. Viewed from slightly below, his form is silhouetted against a fair-weather sky as he commands a vista of a mountainous landscape.

By the 1950s Mizen was termed a “famed specialist” in paintings of the native inhabitants and landscape of the American Southwest.i These were closely related to his work as a commercial artist: not only did many of his published designs, such as magazine covers, originate as paintings, but also he applied to his stand-alone artworks a commercial artist’s attention to detail, solidly representational approach, and sanitized subject-matter. “Mizen’s work is pictorial in the finest sense,” enthused one reviewer: “He employs an almost Kodachromatic palette that bathes his canvases in soft, silvery lights”—a description that fits this painting.ii It may have been among those Mizen exhibited at the O’Brien Galleries in Phoenix, Arizona, in 1956, the year to which it dates.

Mizen belonged to a generation of American artists, many with ties to Chicago, who executed romantic images of the exotic Indian for urbanized Anglo consumers in the first half of the twentieth century. In this work, Mizen, like his mentor Walter Ufer, interpreted the Indian as an inhabitant of the white man’s world, for the hunter’s gun appears to have superseded the traditional knife sheathed at his belt. For all the distinctly indigenous character of Mizen’s image, however, it also draws on a long European tradition of courtly portraiture in which a heroic standing male figure, assuming the character of a hunter, dominates his surroundings, accompanied by a fawning servant, steed, or pet.

Wendy Greenhouse, PhD

i “Mizen and Vannerson Oils of Indians Are Exhibited,” Arizona Republic, Nov. 18, 1956.
ii “Mizen and Vannerson Oils of Indians Are Exhibited.”

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